► River is in UK cinemas now and is available to stream on Dogwoof on Demand.
River, the second in a planned trilogy of essay-style documentaries exploring humanity’s relationship with the natural world, sees director Jennifer Peedom and her collaborators deploy a similar approach to the impressive Mountain (2017). Like its predecessor, River is constituted of episodic, often stunning, visual sequences amplified by an orchestral score and tied together, with a minimalist voiceover again performed by Willem Dafoe.
The preceding film, based on Robert Macfarlane’s book Mountains of the Mind (2003), focused on the obsession that mountains inspire in those drawn to them, while noting their imperious nature. Rivers, on the other hand, are thoroughly intertwined with the rampant human project, flowing through our population centres, making them much more vulnerable and, like much of nature today, shrouded in sadness arising from the damage already done.
The new film tells the more universal story – access to rivers being commonplace and the need for water being ubiquitous – of man’s interactions with rivers through time and illuminating how attempts to control them have backfired.
Much of the 75-minute runtime is spent in the air, with footage from a bird’s-eye perspective, a point of view that fits the temporal scope of the film and vividly illustrates the awesome scale of rivers and the disastrous effects caused by dams trapping sediment. Modern drone technology enables a white-knuckle ride sequence, chasing water down from a mountaintop, while other images of rivers filmed from space tend towards the abstract.
The visuals are supported, frequently brilliantly, by music divided roughly equally between original score and existing repertoire; the pairing of Jonny Greenwood’s composition ‘Water’ with a segment depicting funeral pyres on the edge of the Ganges is one outstanding example.
Defiantly cinematic in the age of the straight-to-small-screen Netflix documentary, River, with its sparsely employed voiceover, walks a self-imposed tightrope in terms of offering coherent narrative. The Robert Macfarlane-penned script is a little less effective than that for Mountain, and the emphasis on spectacle and reliance on the viewer’s intuition comes at the cost of some specificity; more emphasis on and story about evocative giants like the Nile and Amazon might help the film find a wider audience.
As it stands, River is a spectacular audiovisual experience and its central message, that returning rivers to nature is both possible and of great benefit, is an essential one.
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